The Stretcher, Eleuterio Pagliano.
Prov 31:10-31, Matt 25:14-30
We come to the final parable in Matthew’s gospel. It leads to the awesome scene of the Final Judgement, which also sets the context of our reading. The Master, is of course Christ, who is about to go away on a long journey. He entrusts, it says, his possessions to his servants. He does not seem to keep anything to himself. He is completely free, generous – and trusting.
‘Talents’ were money, usually of great value. One of these could easily have been the equivalent of fifteen years’ worth of wages. The master gives to each of his servants according to their ability. He has personal knowledge of them. He also does not indicate anything of what is to be done with them; he simply gives it to the servants and goes away. A slave did not possess anything for himself, he was ‘possessed’ by his master. The working of divine ‘slavery’ on the other hand, can be seen here. It is to share in the abundance of the Master’s possessions, who knows and loves each one individually. It is this love that is cause for due reverence and obedience of the servant. Two of the servants go about trading ‘immediately’. There is no fear, but a confidence, almost a sense of joy which moves them. In contrast, the third servant is paralysed into immobility. As he would say when the Master returns, ‘I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground’. His condemnation is swift, being characterised as ‘lazy’, ‘wicked’ and ‘useless’.
Why does this servant react so differently from the other two? It could be because of how he sees the master, as someone ‘hard’. He says “I heard…”: he bases his knowledge of the master from second hand sources, when the others have a relationship with him. The master deals with all of them in the same way, trusting this one as much as the others. Yet, all this servant sees is the result that he believes will be expected, rather than the freedom given him in trust, to make of it what he will.
It is significant that what is given is money. Money is potentiality. It represents what is possible. Money is useful though, only when it is exchanged for something. Something that is real. Without exchanging money for food, you will starve, irrespective of how much you might have in your account. You could go on a holiday to several places – but you can choose only one of them, not all. When exchanged, it loses its potentiality for what is actual; by virtue of a decision, its many possibilities are changed into something, some one thing, real. It also brings with it the possibility of loss. While the other servants are happy to take a risk, to engage the world with it, the third refuses to leave his comfort zone. He lives only in the realm of possibility as he refuses to engage with the world and hides.
The psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s research on the crisis of masculinity in Western culture found that the average guy spends ten thousand hours playing video games by the age twenty-one. Ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours is the popular rule of thumb to master a given field. You could be well on your way to being a concert violinist or a national cricketer, or studied the Classics in their originals and broken the back of Hegel’s Logic to boot. Or you could have finished Call of Duty, Level 4. Any craft, any learning, requires interaction with people at different levels. To interact with others is always a risk, because people are free. In an online world, be it gaming or others, we control the environment, by and large. It is widely noted that social media platforms are simply echo-chambers, pulling in only the things we already believe and like to see. There is no commitment to relationships in the online world. It is a world divorced from reality. It is the world we can hide the talent in, out of fear of loss. Zimbardo points out that today’s young men do not know how to interact socially, especially when it comes to women. He speaks of how they learn ‘love’ from watching pornography; while perverse in a way unlike videogames, it is similar in terms of the fantasy world it creates. There is no risk, no work involved, only instant pleasure, divorced from the fruit of good work it is meant to accompany.
Everything in life involves taking a risk. To love, is to risk. It is to risk being hurt, risk suffering, risk loss. There is risk involved in making life-long vows, be it in marriage, priesthood, or religious life. There is risk involved in having children; there is risk involved in being a young person as much as in being old. But it is the pathway to joy —the Master’s joy that is shared in an astronomical return with those who risk loving.
But what would this look like? To work virtuously, in harmony with the mind of God? We are not told how the first two servants traded, but we are given a beautiful picture of exactly this, in the first reading. The imagery is so rich, it would require a homily or two to itself, but let me touch on just some of them. Once again, we have the image of a bride or wife, like the last parable to balance out the image of the servant. The Hebrew is better rendered by ‘valiant wife’ rather than the ‘perfect wife’. She is marked as a woman of strength, of courage and resilience, all of which can be included in ‘valour’. These are what move her towards perfection, it is not something she has already attained. Like the master with his servants, her husband places his trust in her. She works with wool and flax. These are natural materials. She is able to take what is available naturally, to make a garment which is dignified and expensive. In other words, she can weave the coarse material of the experiences of her life to bring forth something that clothes her – and others – with beauty and dignity (v.13, 25). She doesn’t demand that her situation change. She does not show fear in the face of anything life might bring (v.25), seen by the confidence with which she clasps her spindle and distaff, an image of grasping life itself. This work is marked by her joy (v.13). This love, this joy, overflows to all in need around her.
What brings about all of this? Notwithstanding the rags she turns to riches (v.13,18), this is not a story of individual self-accomplishment, so admired in the West. The last verse gives us the answer. “…a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (v.30). The fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of Wisdom. This fear of the Lord, is the opposite of the fear that the last servant displays. It is borne out of a trust in the goodness of God. It leads to praise and humility; humility which receives without pretence, the immense trust and confidence that God has placed in the person (v.11). It is a holy reverence, which knows that God is at the center of the universe, while humbly knowing her own role and its importance within it. She has been given trust, and is joyful in that trust. She does not seek to change the raw material of her life, escaping into a world of possibility. She knows she has been given grace to spin this into a garment of beauty.
How would we live, if we knew the Father’s love and the confidence he has placed in each of us? That he is there, not to condemn us, but to empower us, with his grace. That the cross of Christ, which cancelled our sins, continues to wash away any and everything that can go wrong in our life, and make us new. This is the promise and invitation of the gospel. When we hear it, we can live even now, in the Master’s joy.